Ok, imagine you are a judge on one of those celebrity cooking shows. Got it? Good. Let’s say that you’re tasting two tomato risottos, one made by Andy and one made by Caroline. Andy’s risotto is slightly better, so you award the prize to Andy. So far, so fair.
But then after the contest, questions emerge. Caroline isn’t happy with the outcome. She’s a bad loser, maybe: she’s claiming the judgement was unfair. Which is ridiculous. You were the judge; you know your only criteria was the tastiness of the risotto. And although Caroline had clearly tried her best, hers just didn’t have that fresh, juicy tang to it that Andy’s did. Which, now you come to think of it, is odd, because you watched both meals being prepared and Caroline looked like the better cook.
Caroline demands an investigation. Not into you, but into the way the show was constructed. It turns out that when each contestant was provided with their ingredients, Andy was given the best tomatoes, the freshest herbs, the most expensive pan. Caroline was given tomatoes that were slightly off, not quite enough arborio rice, and olive oil that smelt a bit funny. There wasn’t time to complain, though, and Caroline is such a good cook she was sure she could beat Andy even with these handicaps. But she was wrong. The ingredients just weren’t up to it and Andy, who is technically not as good a cook, produced slightly better food. Andy was surprised by the result too, it turned out, but he was hardly going to turn down the prize; after all, he’d worked for it and had done nothing wrong.
Why did Andy get given better tools? Well, the people in charge of distributing them, Dan and Tony, didn’t do it deliberately. They just got chatting to Andy and he seemed like a nice guy, and then when it came to giving Caroline her equipment there wasn’t much left. Nobody meant any harm, really, or not consciously, or not much.
The trouble is, the same thing happened during the previous show with Rob and Sheila, and the show before with Dave and Harriet. And as it happened, Rob and Dave had won their shows too. So did Bob and Fred and George and Paul. And when you thought you were judging Andy and Caroline on merit – you weren’t.
And maybe you don’t like the idea of taking that kind of context into account. It makes everything a lot more complicated, and surely none of it should be your problem. You did what you were supposed to do. But it’s nagging at you, because the wrong person won somehow, even though you thought you were being fair. So you get involved, and you talk to Dan and Tony, and you make sure the process of handing out ingredients and equipment is standardised in future so personal prejudice isn’t such an issue in future. And from then on, you’re more aware, and more inclined to look below the surface. And a risotto is no longer a risotto. It’s a metaphor.